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Pundit’s Mailbag — ‘Mandatory’
Had To Be Removed To Get
Advisory Committee Approval

Our piece, USDA Fruit And Vegetable Advisory Committee Falls Short Of Mandatory Regulation Recommendation, drew attention to a discrepancy between the message the USDA Advisory Committee was giving and what United Fresh & PMA were saying.

The piece brought a number of messages including this letter from a participant:

Chuck Ciruli and I are on the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee and the United Fresh board of directors. Chuck and I strongly urged the inclusion of “mandatory,” and it was in the preliminary drafts. Only in the June meeting final discussion was “mandatory” removed to obtain approval of a produce food safety recommendation. It is likely insisting “mandatory” remain in the language would have resulted in no recommendation. Is it wiser to speak without the word “mandatory” than to say nothing?

Here is the committee’s January 23/24 meeting recommendation: “Recommendation: The Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee advocates a strong partnership between industry and appropriate Federal Government agencies to develop and ensure effective food safety standards that are consistent and applicable to all produce grown anywhere in the United States, or imported into the country. These standards must allow for commodity-specific food safety practices based on the best available science. The Committee urges the Secretary to devote the resources of USDA, including critical research programs, to assist and support industry in initiatives to enhance food safety.”

NOTEthe highlighted bold language: It may be multiple words but it communicates MANDATORY, at least to this writer.

The June 4-5 minutes are not yet posted to provide the exact language. The January record speaks.

Your suggestion that executives of regional boards not be members of the F&V advisory committee is interesting and the impact suggested may be true. Although having served with Matt and Mike, they are articulate, well informed on the process of influencing public policy, add significant substance to the Committee’s discussion, and represent a substantial number of F&V growers. It is unclear the committee would be more “on mission” if such individuals were not part of the process.

The joint positions of United and PMA will be carried well to the appropriate committees and congressmen. All is not lost in articulating the mandatory rationale due to the alleged “watered down” advisory committee June recommendation. Let’s obtain a copy of June recommendation as officially communicated to the Secretary.

Keep up the stimulating discussion.

— John Shelford
Naturipe Farms LLC
Naples Florida

We thank John very much for his letter as it is always important to have the perspective of a person actually wrestling with the trade-offs and decisions that had to be made.

In general, John’s letter confirms the outline of what we discussed: After vigorous debate in the final discussion, the word “mandatory” was removed from the resolution in order to “…obtain approval of a produce food safety resolution”.

In fact, John specifically explains to us all that “… It is likely insisting ‘mandatory’ remain in the language would have resulted in no recommendation.”

To clarify the Pundit’s stance, in no way did we intend to criticize the board collectively or any individual for doing, tactically, what was necessary to pass a resolution.

We are, however, raising the question of why positions diverged between the USDA Advisory Committee and the boards of United Fresh and PMA?

And that is where we came to talk about Mike Stuart and Matt McInerney. We want to make clear that the issue is not their competence or knowledge base — in some ways it is the opposite. As full time association executives, they are typically going to be the best prepared, the most informed, the most knowledgeable. It is their full time job to be so expert on these types of issues. They will thus often exercise disproportionate influence.

It also is not anything personal. Mike and Matt happen to be on the committee now. Next appointee round it might be John McClung of the Texas Produce Association or Chris Schlect of the Northwest Horticultural Council. We have plenty of friends in the association world, and they are good people, well meaning, etc.

The issue we were raising is the appropriateness of having people on the Advisory Committee who are, literally, not really free to change their minds and not really in control of their own vote.

No matter how compelling an argument John Shelford and Chuck Ciruli presented at that Advisory Committee meeting in June, the argument was not going to change Mike Stuart’s or Matt McInerney’s vote because they were not voting their personal opinions; they were voting the opinions expressed by their boards of directors, and those directors were not in the room to hear John and Chuck talk.

At best, John and Chuck could hope that they were so persuasive and had such new and previously unthought-of ideas that Mike and Matt would move to table the issue until the next meeting so they could have time to consult with their own boards.

To John’s point, nothing is without trade-offs. If we insist that board members all be free to vote their own conscience, we lose the knowledge of these regional association executives. However, as an industry, we might be able to compensate by providing Advisory Committee members with additional staff support. Perhaps PMA and United Fresh could provide staff to support and feed briefing papers to the Advisory Committee all year long as they do with their own boards.

We also agree with John that all is not lost. We will see the exact words used in the resolution, but a slight diffusion of message won’t stop Tom Stenzel or Bryan Silbermann from making sure the message that PMA and United Fresh voted on calling for mandatory food safety regulation does get to the appropriate parties.

But the fact that all is not lost does not mean an opportunity was not missed. Unity in government relations is crucial for an industry to effectively advocate for itself.

The larger issue here is whether the discrepancy that exists between WGA, FFVA and the national associations points to the need for a new model for industry government relations.

After all, if WGA and FFVA do accurately represent the position of the produce growers of California and Florida in being opposed to mandatory regulation, that is no small matter.

It would seem to imply that PMA and United Fresh — neither really representing growers except coincidentally, but instead picking up the industry at the packer, shipper and processor level — are starting to find themselves in a common community. And that community may have distinct opinions from that of individual growers who don’t pack or ship. This would seem to be filled with implications for a possible merger between PMA and United.

Many thanks to John for his thought provoking letter.

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